SCI FI LONDON 2011

Includes reviews of Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) [p5-6]

I love B-movies. That’s why, while most of the rest of the country was sitting down to ogle the frocks and sigh at kisses on a balcony on royal wedding day, I was in a dark cinema in the West End with a bunch of other weirdoes watching a Roger Corman double bill. Anything had to be better than listening to Hugh Edwards whisper on and on about hand-made lace and the wonder of monarchy, didn’t it?

Well, maybe, but only just.

In his essay ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’ Frederic Jameson describes how Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws (1975) systematically removes a layer of “undisguised expression of class conflict between the island cop and the high-society oceanographer” that is present in Peter Benchley’s original novel. I’m not sure if I accept the idea of Hollywood stripping away an author’s implicitly political subtext – Benchley, after all, co-wrote the screenplay for the movie. Nevertheless, if Jameson thought that Jaws dumbed-down the monster-in-the-ocean genre, I’m pretty sure that sitting through either Dinoshark or Sharktopus would make his head implode.

Roger Corman (with his wife Julie) produced both these films for the American Sy-Fy channel. They are cheap and they are trashy, as one expects from a film with Corman’s name attached, but they are also empty and dull and stupid and that’s a disappointment. Roger Corman used to be better than this. Corman is, contrary to his hucksterish public persona, a smart guy. Under his ownership New World Pictures provided the conduit into America for films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and more. And, later, when a generation of important American filmmakers was emerging inspired (at least in part) by the filmmakers he’d championed he gave the likes of Copolla, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Cameron, Demme, Howard, Dante, Sayles, Hanson and Towne their first breaks in Hollywood. As a director he made over 60 movies, many are instantly forgettable exploitation flicks but amongst them were strong features like The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Intruder (1962) and films like A Bucket of Blood (1959) and X (1963) that make up for what they lack in quality with boundless energy and flashes of humour.

Corman hasn’t made a film since the pretty awful adaptation of the Brian Aldiss novel Frankenstein Unbound (1990) but as a producer he’s still delivering up to four movies each year. Sadly his ability or interest in unearthing new talent seems to have deserted him. Timur Bekmambetov, who made the execrable The Arena (2001) and Escape from Afghanistan (2002) for Corman, is probably the last director of a Corman production to go on to bigger (if not necessarily better) things with the Night Watch films (2004-6) and the forthcoming Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

These days Corman is working with the likes of Declan O’Brien (Sharktopus) and Kevin O’Neill (Dinoshark). I’m sure both men are kind to their mothers and loved by their children but they are shockingly bad filmmakers. These days Corman’s collaborators aren’t young Turks on the rise, they’re established TV and straight-to-video hacks who’ve made a career out of tripe. It may be that the film industry has changed. The days of the B-movie getting released to cinema are long gone and even the tide of “straight-to-video” releases is beginning to wane. Increasingly the only outlet for low-budget filmmakers who want to make commercial cinema are cable television channels like Sy-Fy. The budgets are miniscule, even by Corman’s standards, but more crucially it’s a market where there’s little creative freedom and no appetite for risk-taking.

So Sharktopus and Dinoshark. Two intensely stupid movies with interchangeable plots shot in the same Mexican locations, often using the same stock footage, low-rent digital special effects, hackneyed scripts and casts so stiff that to call them wooden would insult trees. If one were looking, pace Jameson, for some layer of subtext, some secret pleasure that the masses might eke from the sequence of banal and increasingly depressing images that flash before you while watching this nonsense, then it might be that there is a joy to be found in watching irritating people die spectacularly, but frankly this has been done better and more amusingly elsewhere.

Corman films, it appears, no longer have any faint spark of talent or intelligence lurking behind the schlock. They’ve become drab and these two don’t even offer anything for afficianados of the kitsch and the deliberately silly.

Not that low-budget movies have to be intrinsically stupid, as Sci-Fi London demonstrated to considerable effect elsewhere in its long and eclectic programme. I enjoyed One Hundred Mornings immensely. It is subtle, smart and disturbing and as far removed from the failed kinetics of the Corman double bill as it is possible to imagine. Set in a rural Irish community in the aftermath of some distant apocalypse this is a deliberate piece of cinema, purposefully slow-paced (almost to the point of distraction) and eschewing (mostly) familiar end-of-the-world imagery. One Hundred Mornings is at its strongest when it makes the breakdown of community intensely personal. Two young couples, sharing a small cabin, gradually tear themselves apart as it becomes clear that the world around them has also fallen to pieces. This isn’t an easy movie. It is bleak and harsh and it doesn’t offer much in the way of exposition or explanation and those seeking happy endings should look elsewhere, but there’s something powerful here that kept me gripped. Writer and director Conor Horgan clearly has talent and he gets some strong performances from his cast and the cinematography makes great use of the cruel Irish countryside.

Zenith is an altogether flashier proposition than One Hundred Mornings. Shot in a mish-mash of styles, Zenith is a bit of a mess in places and certainly over-earnest (there’s a great deal of impassioned talking to camera and the portentous conspiracy-based plot that contains some glaring improbabilities) but it is, for all that, entertaining. It is set in 2044 in a world where “words are lost” and the numbed population, gene-engineered to be content, pay the protagonist, Jack, for drugs that make them feel pain. Jack also “knows words” and that makes him special. He can express himself and not just follow the paths laid out for him by the (oddly distant) authoritarian forces controlling this future. Jack follows a trail of videos left by his father, Ed, that catalogue his descent from respectable Catholic priest to conspiracy-driven paranoiac. Jack becomes involved with a prostitute, Lisa, who turns out to be as linguistically adept as he is and slumming it from a wealthy background. All this eventually comes together in a mostly satisfying conclusion but Zenith is flawed.

Parts of the film are supposed to follow Ed from a video camera carried by his sidekick but the director (Vladan Nikolic, credited as Anonymous) either loses his nerve or can’t sustain the artifice because soon we’re shown shots that can’t possibly have been recorded on the tape. Similarly, in Jack’s section of the story, the camera’s point of view twitches interminably in a frenetic display of directorial incontinence and, perhaps, a desire to distract us from the film’s low budget. It’s a shame because it isn’t necessary, the use of location and the grimy cinematography work well when they’re allowed to take centre stage.

The story also suffers from serious failures of logic. This is an oppressed society where access to knowledge is strictly controlled but Jack (son of a prostitute mother who abandoned him at the age of four and a missing, supposedly deranged, father) is, conveniently, a drop-out medical student. Language is on the decline but there are extensively stocked bookshops. The most fundamental flaw, however, is the sense that even at just 90 minutes, Nikolic is padding out his story with a surplus of sex scenes and fights.

Despite this the film is held together by a strong central performance by Peter Scanavino as Jack and the sheer number of ideas that Nikolic throws at the camera. Many of the ideas behind Zenith are familiar to the point of being clichéd but the energy and conviction of the filmmaking mostly papers over the cracks.

Live action adaptations of anime and manga series are a god-forsaken territory that I’ve stumbled into before – Casshern (2004), Dragonball Evolution (2009), The Last Airbender (2010) – and I have invariably left bruised, battered and bewildered. I’m not quite sure, therefore, what it was that persuaded me to buy a ticket for Gantz, perhaps an unquenchable optimism or it might just have been that the screening coincided usefully with an empty space in my schedule. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I saw it.

On one level Gantz is just another biggish-budget teen-adventure movie but underneath there’s a satisfyingly dark heart. It starts in a train station. Kurono, is a young man preparing for a job interview when a drunk falls on the tracks. An old friend of his, Kato, rescues the man but is threatened by an approaching express train. Kurono, reluctantly, offers aid and they both end up beneath the wheels of the train. They awake (via a neat slow-motion teleportation effect) in a room overlooking Tokyo. Gantz, a strange black orb (with a bald man on a ventilator inside it) gives them instructions to hunt down aliens, a set of futuristic weapons and super-powered suits.  Joined by various other reanimated dead they are periodically called upon to do battle with an array of increasingly powerful alien creatures. In between, however, they are dropped back into their own lives, struggling with the changes they have experienced and the everyday problems of love, family and society’s expectations.

Lessons are learned and enemies are defeated in gigantic set-pieces but Gantz (unlike many high-concept movies) keeps its focus firmly on its nicely delineated characters, it keeps the audience off-balance and while it’s brutal in places it finishes on a convincingly upbeat note. There are echoes here of eight-bit video games, superhero tropes and samurai movies which give the film a pleasing depth.

This year’s Sci-Fi London festival closed with Super, the new feature from Slither writer and director James Gunn. It’s the story of Frank (Rainn Wilson), an idiot, who first loses his wife (Liv Tyler) to a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) and then loses his mind. He has visions featuring an evangelical television superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) and is prompted to dress up as costumed vigilante The Crimson Bolt to fight crime with an adjustable wrench and his sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page). I wanted to love this film but couldn’t, despite its fine cast and strong direction. My problem with Super was that I’ve already seen Defendor (2009),which covers almost exactly the same ground but has a fantastic performance by Woody Harrelson in the lead role. Wilson’s performance here is respectable but he never draws out the deep empathy for his character that Harrelson elicits and, as a result, the film never quite delivers Defendor’s emotional pay-off. Super isn’t a bad film, it’s just been beaten to the punch.

Sci-Fi London has always given space to short films. There were three separate programmes of shorts this year and the annual 48 Hour Film Challenge delivered a bumper crop of interesting films five-minute movies. The judges picked The Intention of Miles as the winner. It is a disturbing little film but for my money the first-contact story The White Box, with a slightly Spooks feel and a strong sense of tension, was the best of the lot. I also thought Sit In Silence was a clever and effective piece of filmmaking, enjoyed the ironic slacker apocalypse in Red Rain and the well-developed atmosphere of No Escape. But you can judge for yourself, the films are all still available to view online via the Sci-Fi London website.

In its early days Sci-Fi London billed itself as the science fiction festival for people who weren’t science fiction fans. The tenth iteration of the festival now encompasses the presentation of the Clarke Awards and a growing number of literary events. It is growing every year, gradually encompassing all types of science fiction from the trashy to the profound, but the energy and enthusiasm of festival director Louis Savy is still the obvious driving force behind the scenes. 2011 was another entertaining year that provided much needed respite from the royal shenanigans down the road and delivered a number of treats.

This review was originally published in Vector 267.
This is a slightly longer draft which includes a review of Gantz
that didn’t (for good reasons) make the final printed version.
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